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THE DEAF AND DUMB CHANGELING.
IN the next morning's cheerful daylight I set out to resume once more my school routine within the sombre walls of the "invincible" city. But, as we proceeded on our way, we were surprised to see knots and clusters of people reading with absorbing interest huge placards written in Siamese, Pali, Cambodian, Birmese, Peguan, and every other language spoken by the many distinct peoples who inhabit the mountains and valleys watered by the great river Mčinam, and posted all along the imperial walls.
Here was another mystery.
I could read printed Siamese and Pali tolerably well. But the written characters, wherein every scholar invents an orthography of his own, baffled all my linguistic efforts, and not a glimmering of light could the numberless questions I put to many of the curious readers procure for me; they were as afraid to speak of royalty as of the devil, lest he should appear. So I went on to school to find the same mysterious announcements, which had sprung up like mushrooms during the night, running zigzag over all the walls, and playing hide and seek along the dark, narrow lanes and streets, only to elude my strictest inquiries.
Now, to tell the truth, as I was treasonably disposed against slavery and polygamy and several other gross abuses that grew out of them, and had stoutly set my face against them from the very first day of my installation as teacher in the palace, I began to fear that these placards might concern me and my teachings; so when school closed I went to see my friend, Lady Thieng. But she was even more mysterious than the unintelligible hieroglyphics on the walls, looking at me curiously, and shaking her head in a solemn manner, and feeling me all over in a pathetic way, so as to reassure herself that I was not a spirit, but made of flesh and bones like herself, and could not have been, as she had begun secretly to suspect, at Bijrepuree and at Bangkok at the same time.
She then gravely asked me if I had ever practised sorcery or witchcraft. My lips trembled with irrepressible laughter as I assured her I had not as yet enjoyed the good fortune of knowing a real witch; but that nothing in the world would please me better than to be introduced to one who would give me lessons in that art. She admonished me sternly for my levity, and went on to say that there had really been a very powerful sorceress in the palace during the king's absence at Bijrepuree, who had, unseen by human eye, conjured away the beautiful and disconsolate princess, and left in her place a rustic deaf and dumb slave-girl.
Amazed and altogether taken by surprise, I looked into my friend's face in unspeakable sorrow. My heart whispered to me the last words of May-Peâh, "I do not know what I am going to do, but something shall be done to save her, even if I die for it." I could not bring myself to ask another question, I was so afraid of confirming my fears, I had learned to love that slave-woman better than her mistress, and would have braved a thousand perils if I had thought I could save her through them.
"I wish," cried Thieng, at last, in a sudden burst, as if her thoughts had been going on in this strain and only broke from her when she could restrain herself no longer, — "I wish that this deaf and dumb slave-girl could be exorcised and made to speak, and then we would know how it happened, and how the old witch looked.
"O dear! O dear! I am afraid for my life and the lives of my poor children; and even the very stones out of which this dismal city is built inspire me with dread and horror," said poor Thieng, ruefully; "and do you know?" she added, — her eyes growing rounder and rounder every moment, as the awfulness of the situation presented itself to her mind, — "his Majesty has shut himself up in his topmost chamber, and guards are set at all the doors and windows, lest any suspicious-looking person should enter, and no one but only the old lady-physician, Khoon Maw Prang, is allowed to see him to serve his meals, and he won't come down till the palace and whole city has been exorcised. And there will be no school to-morrow,' she continued, growing more and more communicative, "for he has ordered all the royal children to be shut up in their homes until noon, when the old devil shall have been driven out by the priests of Brahma; and the priests of Buddha will then purify the city with burning incense and sprinkling the houses, walls, and all its inhabitants with holy water."
Up to the last moment a natural cause for the diSâppearance of the Princess Sunartha Vismita never even presented itself to the mind of my simple-hearted friend, and I was not a little comforted, for the sake of the strange Laotian woman, to find that it was thought so absolutely the work of some supernatural agent. For Thieng also told me that the court astrologers and wizards were trying to unravel the mystery; that large rewards had been promised to them if they could throw any light on the subject; and, lastly, that the two Laotian captives, with the deaf and dumb changeling, were to be exorcised and examined in the ecclesiastical court on the following day by the "wise" men and women in the country.
After which the poor unhappy lady laid her head down upon her pillow, utterly grieved and terrified by her fears. I tried in vain to comfort her. But what between her dread of the supernatural and her misgivings that tomorrow the chances were that certain accusations against herself and me, as secret agents of some devilish sort, might be brought forward with unanswerable logic, she was quite inconsolable and greatly to be pitied.
I believe she would have been content to give her life, ere day broke, only to catch a glimpse of the poor unfortunate princess whom the demon had thus maliciously kidnapped and carried off.
The only thing I could say, that seemed in the slightest degree to soothe her, was that I would endeavor to be present at the ecclesiastical court at the time appointed for the exorcism, and obtain such intelligence of its proceedings, and the facts elicited during the trial, as my imperfect knowledge of the technical language and formalities of the Siamese courts would enable me to gather for her.